The Cold War is ripe for rethinking, and so I enjoyed Michael Grow's U.S. Presidents and Latin American Interventions: Pursuing Regime Change in the Cold War (2008) even though I think it poses more questions than it answers. When re-examining a well-worn topic, though, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Grow takes on the idea that U.S. intervention was based primarily on national security or economic interests, which was what he originally thought as well. But as his research project got underway
it soon became apparent that the factors of national security and economic self-interest provided an inadequate framework for explaining U.S. interventionism. Instead, it became increasingly evident that three entirely different factors--U.S. international credibility, U.S. domestic politics, and lobbying by Latin American and Caribbean political actors--consistently combined to exert decisive influence on presidential decisions to intervene (p. xi).
Each chapter outlines a case study (Guatemala 1954, Cuba 1961, British Guiana 1963, Dominican Republic 1965, Chile 1970, Nicaragua 1981, Grenada 1983, Panama 1989). There is a lot of interesting material. For example, it is easy to forget how much Ronald Reagan was floundering early in his first term, with very low approval ratings and a need for an "easy win." Or the intensity of the media blitz orchestrated by anti-Noriega Panamanians. Or how every single president from Eisenhower to Bush talked constantly, sometimes obsessively, how their actions in Latin America would be perceived at home and abroad.
So we have a great kernel of a hypothesis, but it would be good to take it further. I had three main questions:
First, the three explanatory variables are not constant in each case. What is the effect, let's say, if there is less lobbying by Latin American actors?
Second, every case ends in intervention. What about cases where the U.S. was challenged but did not intervene (I think of nationalization in Mexico and Bolivia, for example)? Examining those cases could explain the relative importance of the three main variables.
Third, there are different types of intervention. How do the three variables explain why the U.S. chooses covert action versus invasion?
Obviously, teasing all that out would not be an easy task, and I don't blame Grow for not doing it. In general, I think his book offers a fresh take, and could be a springboard for further analysis of causation.